California Academy of Sciences Environmental Graphics and Branding

Museum as Metaphor

The Renzo Piano-designed California Academy of Sciences is a statement about sustaining and conserving a living planet. Its identity and environmental graphics speak the same language.

The California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is considered a shining example of what natural history museums should be in the 21st century. Opened in 2008 on the site of its old earthquake-ravaged home, at 410,000-square-foot space it is the largest public building to attain a LEED Platinum rating, and is hailed as the greenest museum in the world. It is the only museum to house a planetarium, aquarium, national history museum, four-story rainforest, and world-class research and education programs for 11 fields of scientific study all under one living roof. And it is a sun-filled, airy place that joyfully invites visitors to experience the excitement of the natural world.

Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano in collaboration with Bay Area-based Stantec Architecture, the new building is an expression of the Academy’s mission to explore, explain, and protect the natural world. Its design is a metaphor for the living planet and the organizing idea behind the museum’s new identity.

“Our goal is to create a new facility that will not only hold powerful exhibits but serve as one itself, inspiring visitors to conserve natural resources and help sustain the diversity of life on earth,” explains Academy Executive Director Dr. Gregory Farrington.

Piano’s bold architecture makes it clear that the museum has embarked on a new chapter in its long history. A fixture in Golden Gate Park since 1916, the Academy had expanded over the decades into a cluster of 11 buildings. When the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 forced the closure of one building and required major repairs to others, the Academy weighed how to rebuild and asked itself what it should be in the 21st century. In recent years, like other natural history museums across the country, it had seen a steady decline in visitors and membership.

The new construction gave the Academy an opportunity to create a more relevant museum experience for visitors by focusing greater attention on issues like sustainability, conservation, and science education. Sharing this goal, Renzo Piano envisioned a structure with a living roof that would blend harmoniously into the park setting. His concept was to “slice out a rectangular portion of the park, lift it up 36 feet and slide a building underneath it.” To accommodate the 70- to 90-foot height of the planetarium and a new four-story rainforest exhibit, he added rolling “hills”—seven of them, like the hills of San Francisco. Carpeted with nine native California plant species, the roof insulates the building, reduces low-frequency noise levels inside, and absorbs storm water runoff. Its louvered circular skylights provide natural light and ventilation to the interior.

From ground level, Piano wanted the landscape to appear just as continuous, so exterior walls are transparent, allowing views clear through the building to the Golden Gate Park on the other side. Inside, exhibits are arranged to give visitors a sense of the interconnectivity of the biosphere. The glass-roofed central piazza is flanked by two giant orbs that house the planetarium and living rainforest, with glimpses of the aquarium exhibits one level below.

Sustainable identity

Revitalized by Piano’s design, the Academy asked then-Pentagram Partner Kit Hinrichs to create a new identity that would reflect its commitment to sustainability and encompass its major offerings: the Kimball Natural History Museum, Steinhart Aquarium, and Morrison Planetarium, which previously each had their own logo. From the start, Hinrichs and his lead designer, Laura Scott, concluded that the Academy’s living roof was its most recognizable visual signature, and wanted to allude to it in the new symbol. The answer appeared while Scott was viewing Piano’s original sketches, which used simple indented curves to indicate placement of the hills.

“The indented curve was the inspiration,” Scott says.  “By rotating and interweaving the curves and introducing three colors to represent the aquarium, planetarium, and natural history museum, a flower-like symbol emerged.” Radiating out from a center circle, the overlapping curves weave into an image the museum describes as “the fabric of life.“ The color palette also serves as a visual metaphor. Green represents nature. International Orange reflects the color of San Francisco’s famed Golden Gate Bridge and echoes Piano’s color selection for the light fixtures in the piazza. Gray celebrates the poet George Sterling’s description of San Francisco as “the cool grey city of love.” Whitney, an unpretentious sans-serif typeface by Hoefler & Frere-Jones, was adopted as the logotype.

Implementing the brand in 3D

Hinrichs integrated these brand elements into the Academy’s development campaign materials, including brochures, quarterly newsletters, and a stationery system. But when it came to graphically branding the building itself, Hinrichs encountered resistance because etching or stenciling the logo on the glass exterior walls would alter the perception of transparency. In the end, everyone agreed on creating a 21-foot diameter logo at the entrance, inset in the concrete using three different colors of granite.

Kate Keating Associates, contracted to implement a wayfinding system and identification and regulatory signage, encountered the same issues when designing the building’s exterior signage. Keating’s solution was to create a dramatic entrance totem, a 24-foot-tall fabricated aluminum pylon painted International Orange to match the light fixtures in the piazza, with the logo and Whitney lettering cast in aluminum, painted white, then pin-mounted to the totem.

Interior wayfinding

The building’s transparency presented challenges inside as well. To maintain the clean and open aesthetic and encourage the Academy’s philosophy of exploration, Keating’s wayfinding system intervenes only minimally. Keating’s first proposal called for square pylons with directions on all four sides, but was ultimately changed to a narrow two-sided pylon, braced by slender metal posts that do not block the views. The pylons are made of durable, easy-to-clean porcelain enamel with vinyl graphics that can be changed as needed. In keeping with the branding system, text was set flush left in Whitney in International Orange.

“The way we think of signs is that they should be there when people need them, and not be noticed when they don’t,” explains Keating Principal Julie Vogel.

Even so, the museum’s open space plan and multiple entry points to exhibits made placement of the signs difficult. “We did three super graphic installations because there were no architectural solutions for where we could place the signs,” Vogel says. For example, the curved wall of the planetarium could not accommodate a sign telling visitors they had to exit right instead of left. The problem was solved by applying gigantic arrows on the compound curved wall, pointing the way out. 

Vogel says the minimal wayfinding approach is appropriate for a museum like the Academy. “You don’t want to upstage the content. There’s a balance between assisting people and interfering with their experience. In museums, it’s okay if people don’t always know where they are because they’re likely to discover something new.”

Donor walls: linking content and givers

Publicly acknowledging donors is a critical part of every museum capital campaign. The drive to raise $488 million for the new museum drew in contributions from literally thousands of supporters. The list was too large for a single donor display, so it was divided into three: a community donor wall, an annual donor wall, and a major donor wall for those who contributed more than $50,000.

Hinrichs saved his most ambitious design for the major donor display, which he wanted to take beyond a list of names. His idea was to simultaneously raise awareness of the Academy’s renowned science research arm and collection of 20 million specimens.

“My original plan was to treat this wall as a real exhibit, by making it appear like a specimen drawer turned on its side,” explains Hinrichs. “Each donor would be listed by a cube that contained a real specimen with a magnifying glass attached to the display so visitors could examine it up close.”

But he soon learned that prolonged UV exposure would cause real specimens to disintegrate. The Keating team, collaborating with Hinrichs to realize his vision, researched alternatives and finally recommended using photographs. They brought in Ostrom Glass & Metal Works, a Portland, Ore., studio capable of creating high-quality laminated glass.

For each “specimen,” Ostrom made two pieces of 6- by 6-inch glass (one ¾-inch thick and the other 1/2-inch), and a printer in Vancouver, Wash., printed images of the specimens in four-color process on clear film. Martinelli Environmental Graphics (San Francisco) was then charged with a challenging fabrication and installation project. For each of the 288 specimens, Martinelli painted the backs of the glass opaque white to give the objects a three-dimensional effect, etched the names of the donors into the glass and filled the letters with paint (a few were left blank to accommodate future donors), then sandwiched the clear film between the two pieces of glass and attached bracket-hanging VHB tape to the backs. The final, harrowing task, says President Jack Martinelli, was drilling two holes in the concrete wall for each bracket without causing the concrete to crumble. “We tested repeatedly on another wall to make sure it would work.” The installation went flawlessly, and has been viewed as a feat by everyone involved.

“It’s a beautiful solution that makes a connection between the museum’s collections—the actual content of the museum—and the people who make the museum possible,” notes Vogel.

That could be said of the entire architectural and environmental graphics programs. In museums, it is rare to see visitors gazing happily at a donor wall, but at the California Academy of Sciences, every detail is a fascinating exhibit that reveals stories about the natural world and the innovative possibilities of science in action.

--By Delphine Hirasuna, eg magazine No. 04, 2012

Editor's note: Delphine Hirasuna is a San Francisco-based writer and editor of @Issue: Journal of Business and Design. She is also the author of several books, including The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-1946. The book has been turned into an exhibition, shown in seven U.S. museums. Japan Public Broadcasting Corp. is currently sponsoring a year-long tour of the exhibition in Japan, with Hirasuna as curator.



Client:  California Academy of Sciences

Open Date:  September 2008

Architecture:  Renzo Piano Building Workshop, Stantec Architecture

Identity, Branding, and Environmental Graphics:  Studio Hinrichs

Design Team:  Kit Hinrichs creative director Laura Scott designer, Jon Schleuing project manager

Wayfinding and Signage Design:  Kate Keating Associates

Design Team:  Kate Keating principal in charge, Julie Vogel senior designer/project manager, Justin Lawrance, designer

Fabrication:  Weidner Architectural Signs exterior signs; Thomas Swan Sign Company interior wayfinding and regulatory signs; Martinelli Environmental Graphics donor program; Ostrom Glass & Metal Works architectural glass for specimen wall; Winsor Fireform porcelain enamel

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